Facebook should take notes from Sri Lanka as it builds satellites


In June 2016, a drone took to the skies. It was a simple test flight with big ambitions. If it worked, then Facebook would’ve been able to use this drone to bring the internet to people from the skies. However, last month the company announced that it was shutting down the Aquila project. But the company has given up on its ambitious plans.

Facebook | Satellites | Sri Lanka
Facebook is working on Project Athena to use satellites to offer internet access (Image credits: Storyblocks)

According to documents obtained by WIRED, Facebook has shifted its efforts towards satellites. The purpose of these satellites would be to provide broadband access to areas that don’t have proper internet access across the world. And they would be located 100 to 1,250 miles above our planet. This is Project Athena.

This isn’t the first time

In recent times, we’ve heard that the next million Internet users will come from low-income areas. Many of these are still don’t have proper internet access. As such, tech giants like Facebook and Google have taken it as a challenge to bring affordable internet access to the people in these areas.

In 2013, Facebook launched Internet.org to bring universal internet access (Image credits: Quartz)
In 2013, Facebook launched Internet.org to bring universal internet access (Image credits: Quartz)

Its first attempt at tackling this challenge was the Internet.org initiative. This was a multi-part initiative with a key program being Free Basics, which made certain websites freely available. Currently, it serves 40 million people globally. However, the program has been criticized for violating Net Neutrality and was banned in India.

Another part of Internet.org was the Connectivity Lab. This is a research effort to develop new technologies that offer internet access. Interestingly, it has explored satellites in the past. In 2016, it had built one. However, it was destroyed when the SpaceX rocket carrying it exploded. It was a costly disaster that made Elon Musk cry more than Mark Zuckerberg.

But the most famous of these efforts was Aquila. This project called for a series of solar power drones. These drones would fly high above the clouds and then beam internet to the ground. However, the idea for these drones was shut down. Instead, Aquila would focus on developing software and other technologies for similar endeavors.

Google Loon offers some valuable lessons

With Facebook exploring the use of satellites, there are some challenges it will need to conquer.  One of these challenges is that in low earth orbit, Facebook would need multiple satellites. This could number in the hundreds or the thousands. And these satellites aren’t cheap to build.

The Google Loon fiasco reminds us of the challenges of using new technologies to deliver internet

Thus, this begs the question as to whether the technology will be affordable compared to existing internet solutions. Yet, technical challenges are only one side of the coin. As we saw when Google Loon came to Sri Lanka, it’s a huge bureaucratic mess to even test these new technologies. Much of it from a lack of understanding and stupid statements becoming headline news.

As such, one can’t help but wonder whether the real challenge is whether people actually want internet from Facebook? Ultimately, technological challenges are easy but people are not.


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